These days, everyone seems to have a slow cooker to make life easier. But guess what? There’s a simpler, less expensive alternative that’s been helping rural people cook food and conserve fuel for at least 200 years!
According to Wikipedia, a haybox is a “…cooker that utilizes the heat of the food being cooked to complete the cooking process. Food items to be cooked are heated to the boiling point, and then insulated. Over a period of time, the food items cook by the heat captured in the insulated container.” Haybox cookery (sometimes called “thermal cookery”) may well be the original “slow food” as it takes about 3x longer to cook the food than when using direct heat, but as long as you’re not in a hurry, it’s an excellent way to conserve energy – up to 80% according to some sources.
First thought to have been practiced by Norwegian peasants and “officially” appearing in publications in the early 19th century, hayboxes were used in WWI and WWII in England to conserve rationed cooking fuel, and were also promoted by the US government during the Great Depression. Fast forward to the 21st century, where the concept is still used by hikers and campers, who heat up food in the morning and then store the heated pot in a sleeping bag or backpack through the day, to provide a hot meal in the evening. True today as in the 1800s, the haybox method saves fuel and labor. No food is overcooked, or burnt. No nourishment is lost. The resulting flavor is exquisite!
There are several books available on the subject, but my favorite is Haybox Cookery by Eleanour Sinclair Bohde, published by George Routledge and Sons, Ltd, London in 1939. Even though this book is out of print and somewhat difficult to find), I recommend getting a copy if you can, because it gives detailed information and is an excellent place to get started. Topics covered:
If you’re interested in trying haybox cooking, and can’t find Haybox Cookery, there is a wealth of information online, including the following:
One note: When using any thermal cooking method, you need to be careful to maintain a high enough temperature to prevent the growth of dangerous bacteria. If the temperature of the food drops below 140°F (60 °C) for any length of time, you risk food poisoning. Therefore, a) it’s important to make sure the food is truly boiling when you place it in the thermal cooker so it stays good and hot and b) it’s best to use a thermometer to make sure the food stays at a safe temperature. There are several digital cooking thermometers with remote sensors that can be used to monitor the temperature of the food in your haybox cooker without opening the lid – a quick internet search will show you several options.
Grab a box, some hay, a covered pot, and your favorite ingredients and start exploring a whole new exciting, delicious, resource-conserving world!